TELEVISION / Fairy tales of science

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE Radio Times described Sunday's Equinox, 'The Emperor's New Mind' (C4), as 'a vigorous common sense approach' to the subject of Artificial Intelligence, but there was uncommon sense aplenty too, as the mathematician Roger Penrose whisked us nimbly through the enigmatic mysteries of Schrodinger's Cat, Godel's Incompleteness Theorem and an operation called Tiling the Euclidean Plane, whose ceramic requirements would certainly tax the reserves of the DIY warehouses. How do Do-It-All do it? Cover an infinite plane, that is. And how much grouting would they need?

Penrose, whose qualifications as guide through this popular-maths jungle included working with Stephen Hawking - few other qualifications really being necessary, I suppose - is that rare breed of boffin, a thorough-going sceptic disinclined to believe the fairy-stories of scientists. In this case, the fairy-stories involve the fevered dreams of computer scientists that they may one day be able to create artificial humans, 'robotic progeny' that actually think like us. This is apparently known as the 'Strong' Artificial Intelligence viewpoint, though even less-than-vigorous common sense shows how weak the position actually is. How, for instance - and this is where the tiling comes in - could the endlessly proliferating possibilities of consciousness be enumerated in a mere machine?

The AI pipe-dream is the result of engineers, prosaic types in the main, conveniently ignoring the kinds of airy-fairy problems that philosophers have wrestled with for centuries - in this case, the Mind /Body Problem, whose greatest hurdle involves finding an adequate material definition of a non-material entity, 'thought'.

The category-error upon which the fallacious Strong AI position is based, Penrose claimed, was in mistaking the 'perfect' abstraction of mathematical principles for reality itself, when they actually only apply to the physical part of that reality; and, as he pointed out with a little help from Godel, the supposed perfection of maths is itself riddled with Uncertainty Principles and ultimate Incompleteness. Rather than build a machine that can replace us, what computer scientists have actually done is build a machine that can train us to behave more like machines.

One problem the programme's makers didn't solve satisfactorily was how to present these abstract complexities as television. Penrose was always more readily comprehensible when doing a simple talking-head to camera, but the Strong TV position demands more. It was easy enough to illustrate the sexy- science attraction of the 'fairy- story' by recourse to plastic cut- away heads packed with logic- boards full of twinkling lights, the classic sci-fi movie representation of computer consciousness, but the opposing position was less readily visualisable. In the end, the programme-makers had Penrose wandering round a funfair, its brute machines decked out in lights whose twinkle aped the computers. Here were 'fun machines', it suggested, whose function was explicable only outside the mechanical realm. A bit like computers themselves, really.

As if that wasn't enough weighty intelligence for one night, there was an entire hour of Wisdom on The South Bank Show (ITV). Norman, that is. Though I've never been a fan it was impossible not to be won over by the claim that although he now resides in the Isle of Man, he takes no advantage of that island's lenient tax laws, insisting on paying his full whack as a Briton: as so many times before, a humble comedian demonstrates the kind of true nobility to which our politicians pay mere lip- service.

Given Wisdom's stature and career - as the programme pointed out, he virtually bankrolled the Rank Organisation (also known as that popular chimera, 'the British film industry') throughout the post-war years - it is scandalous that he has yet to receive the kind of honours routinely visited upon his more 'U' colleagues; but then, Wisdom built a career upon the 'non-U' teasing of his supposed betters, as in picture after picture his 'Gump' character simply refused to acknowledge the signs and signals of class distinction.

Age has clearly not withered his keen sense of timing: as he brought out the first of the 34 suits he had run up for the Gump, the trousers slipped off the coat-hanger. 'Don't worry,' he deadpanned, 'that isn't the first time they've fallen over.' You could all but hear the drum-roll punch it home. There was a nobility, too, to Wisdom's self-deprecation, as he applied a trouper's resilience to the unhappy facts of his own early life. Describing how his father had, in an alcoholic rage, flung him across a room with such force that he had actually hit the ceiling, he said: 'It didn't hurt me. Maybe it did me the world of good - I learnt how to fall.'